/ 26 August 2011

Libyan rebels breach the sanctum

The invasion of Bab al-Aziziya, the beating heart of the Muammar Gaddafi regime, by rebel forces was a moment of enormous symbolism for those who have fought a civil war for the past six months and nurtured an underground opposition for the past four decades.

The sprawling, high-walled compound, just south of Tripoli’s centre, had become an emblem of the Gaddafi regime, which had held Libyans in its iron grip since 1969 and which seemed, until this year, impossible to dislodge.

But pictures of rebel fighters running through the grounds of Gaddafi’s inner sanctum, hoisting rebel flags, ripping up posters of the “Brother Leader” and attacking an iconic statue have echoes of other historic moments and the fall of different dictators.

In Iraq it was the toppling of the statue of Saddam Hussein in central Baghdad. In Egypt it was the moment in Tahrir Square when news filtered through to the tens of thousands of protesters that hated dictator Hosni Mubarak had gone.

In Libya it was the breaching of the high walls of Bab al-Aziziya by euphoric rebel forces. No one knew where Gaddafi was, but everyone was certain that he wasn’t coming back. Gaddafi’s whereabouts are important, but not critical. In Iraq, Saddam was not found until nine months after the fall of the regime. What will count in the next few days is whether loyalist forces continue to fight or throw in the towel.

For residents in the loyalist-held capital, who have kept their rebel sympathies in check for the past six months, it must have been a sweet moment.

“I have a rebel flag at home waiting for the moment when I can bring it out,” a man in Tripoli’s old city told the Guardian back in April.

The rebels swiftly took over the skeleton of a building at the centre of the compound which was bombed by United States war planes 25 years ago in retaliation for a Libyan attack on a Berlin night club in which two American soldiers were killed. The wreckage was kept as a monument to what the regime described as American and colonialist aggression.

In front of the shattered facade is a huge statue of a giant golden fist crushing a western warplane in its grip. It was here that Gaddafi’s daughter, Aisha, whipped a crowd into a frenzy one night in April, pumping out a message of uncompromising defiance against Nato and the West.

On Tuesday a rebel fighter stood atop the statue, waved a rebel flag and pumped clenched fists in a victory salute.

The six square kilometre compound has housed the Gaddafi family’s private quarters, regime offices and military barracks for decades. In the past six months it has also been home to hundreds of pro-regime loyalists who camped out in the sprawling grounds to act as human shields for Gaddafi against Nato air strikes.

Nato war planes have struck targets inside Bab al-Aziziya about half a dozen times since its mission began in late March, claiming to have destroyed military command-and-control centres. Regime officials denied any such facilities existed within the compound, but permitted foreign media access only to selected bombed buildings.

Reporters and TV crews were taken in the early hours of one morning to view a multi-storey building which had been destroyed in a Nato bombing mission. Part of it, they said, was a library, and books and ringbinders of documents were strewn around the wreckage. Gaddafi liked to read there, the officials said, and Tony Blair had visited the building while he was British prime minister.

But they had blocked access to another bombed building and became aggressive when reporters asked what it had housed.

Bab al-Aziziya — meaning “splendid gate” — included state and banqueting rooms for receiving foreign dignitaries, and a football field. Gaddafi himself was said to live in a Bedouin-style tent in the compound’s grounds, although it is thought that he has spent much of the past six months in the warren of underground bunkers believed to have been built below Bab al-Aziziya.

The regime reportedly situated the compound within easy reach of Tripoli’s international airport, which has been dormant for six months. Other less obvious escape routes may have been incorporated into the design. —